Jane Austen

by O.W. Firkins

Chapter VII: The Group of Novels

The full criticisms I have given to the plots of the several novels will enable me to abridge my comments on the Austen plots. I may say, in word, that Sense and Sensibility reads like the 'prentice-work of a born expert; Pride and Prejudice speaking broadly, is unreservedly excellent; Northanger Abbey begins with mature power, only to relapse into juvenility; Mansfield Park, in its cemented love-affairs, is a much reduced but appreciable success on the same lines as Pride and Prejudice; Emma is a half lucky, half unlucky, shift to a newer and looser method; Persuasion is an unqualified failure. I speak solely with reference to plot. My own order would be as follows: first, and much the first, Pride and Prejudice; second, Mansfield Park and Emma almost on a level; fourth, at a marked distance, Sense and Sensibility; fifth, again, at a distance, Northanger Abbey; and, lastly, Persuasion.

So wide a grade in so scant a held is remarkable; and probably Mansfield Park and Emma indicate the normal level of a talent which unconcern lowered in Persuasion and accident raised in Pride and Prejudice. The difference between the plots of Mansfield Park and Emma in kind is much greater than the difference in merit. My feeling prefers Emma; my reason, Mansfield Park; and in such conflicts I think it reasonable to prefer one's feeling. Mansfield Park is an old-fashioned tale, somewhat cumbered with a biographical and a domestic bias, neither of which is in the least favorable to strictness of logical continuity. Emma is a village chronicle or civic record, a later genus, which Bulwer-Lytton was to pursue in the first part of My Novel, and Trollope to adumbrate in the Barsetshire series, and to which George Eliot was to give the distinction of rounded finality in Middlemarch. In such a case the looseness of the plan is the defense of the looseness of the particulars; a hole in a tightly woven basket is a far more serious offense than an interval of the size of a hole in a basket of which the woof is avowedly open. The independence of the Elton-Smith and Churchill-Fairfax love-affairs in Emma is inoffensive, because the reader has not been lantern-led by the supposition that one of them was to influence the other. But the failure of the Elliot courtship to exert any influence upon the relations between Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth in Persuasion is an offense, because the reader has been induced to confide in its relevancy.

Jane Austen was very fond of persons in her novels, and her fondness was comprehensive; she had acquired from those provincial balls in which she half eagerly, half deprecatingly, participated a relish for watching a dozen or two of people in simultaneous and loosely complicated action. A taste of this kind is inimical to logic, especially if it be combined with a predilection for truth. Nature is thoroughly masculine in her fondness for logic, that is for an internal or ultimate logic; but she is braoenly feminine in the fitful and desultory way in which logic is distributed among the appearances of things. On the surface--and novels in the broad sense deal with surfaces--she refuses to be compactly or intricately logical. She is stubborn in her reluctance to cast the relations of a dozen persons for a considerable period into logical form. If a novelist wants to portray many persons he must choose between logic and nature, in other words between artifice and incoherence. Dickens, in his populously intricate fictions, to his gain and to his loss, chose artifice. But for Jane Austen the grand scale of Dickens was impracticable. Her world was a Belgium--populous but minute. Moreover, never easy outside of nature and those simple though notable modifications of nature to which she was inclined, she had neither taste nor capacity for artifice.

The result is a falling-off in coherence. The amount of injury which this did to her work will be variously estimated, but the story as story has so declined in authority in our day that a mere crack in its frame evokes no lively displeasure. The world on this point has all but revolted to Jane Austen. Moreover, Jane was a true craftsman in her way. She liked her work-liked solicitude in her work. The adaptations, the congruities, the comities, of particulars, were dear to her woman's hand. Without being scrupulous, she was nice. If she permitted large folds in her work, it amused her to smooth out tbe little wrinkles. A very clear illustration of what is meant may be found in the use of the Palmers in Sense and Sensibility. The Palmers are really quite otiose in the story; Marianne's sickness did not require the appropriation of their country-house. But the visit, though badly conceived, is deftly prearranged by the introduction of the Palmers in the first half of the tale, and an urgent, farsighted invitation to the two sisters to spend their Christmas at Cleveland. The same thing is observable in Emma. In that placid, yet vigorous, novel an exquisite art overlies a clumsy art; everything falls to pieces, but the pieces cling together. In a letter criticising a manuscript novel of her niece, Anna Lefroy, Miss Austen says: "Had you not better give some hint of St. Julian's early history in the beginning of the story?" In Persuasion, written partly in failing health, she is sometimes unobservant of her own precept. Mrs. Smith is introduced in Chapter XVII without the salve of an anticipatory reference in the early chapters. Let not the young reader be too much startled at these inconsistencies. The willingness to work hard to avoid a bad error in its association with the unwillingness to work harder to avoid a worse is one of the most normal if least logical things in that normally illogical contrivance known as human nature.

I think we shall find in Miss Austen's style another illustration of the same form of inconsistency. I should call her style, in the first instance, a diagonal between her taste and her conscience, and, in the second instance, a compromise between her zeal her ease. To take up the first point: the fallowing sentences from her letters will show how she wrote when she obeyed her instinct.

Your abuse of our gowns amuses but does not discourage me; I shall take mine to be made up next week, and the more I look at it the better it pleases me. My cloak came on Tuesday, and, though I expected a good deal, the beauty of the lace astonished me. It is too handsome to be worn--almost too handsome to looked at. The glass is all safely arrived also, and gives great satisfaction. The wine-glasses are much smaller than I expected, but I suppose it is the proper size. We find no fault with your manner of performing any of our commissions, but if you like to think yourself remiss in any of them, pray do.
I will now quote a passage from Dr. Johnson which I imagine to have conformed pretty closely to her notion of the decorous and desirable in English style.
But biography has often been allotted to writers, who seem very little acquainted with the nature of their task, or very negligent about the performance. They rarely afford any other account than might be collected from publick papers, but imagine themselves writing a life, when they exhibit a chronological series of actions or preferments; aqd have so little regard to the manners or behaviour of their heroes, that more knowledge may be gained of a man's real character, by a short conversation with one of his servants, than from a formal and studied narrative, begun with his pedigree, and ended with his funeral.
There are indeed, some natural reasons why these narratives are often written by such as were not likely to give much instruction or delight, and why most accounts of particular persons ate barren and useless. If a life be delayed till interest and envy are at an end, we may hope for impartiality, but must expect little intelligence; for the incidents which give excellence to biography are of a volatile and evanescent kind, such as soon escape the memory, and are rarely transmitted by tradition. We know how few can pourtray a living acquaintance, except by his most prominent and observable peculiarities, and the grosser features of his mind; and it may be easily imagined how much of this little knowledge may be lost in imparting it, and how soon s succession of copies will lose all resemblance to the original.
It must be remembered that Jane Austen was ultimately a docile person. She had her whims and rebellions and naughtinesses, for which the readers of her books and letters are profoundly thankful, but she knew the boundaries of her playground. She wished to express herself, but she wished to observe the proprieties. Imagine a cosy New-England body renting an Italian palace and trying to infuse into its large and desolate rooms a little of the domesticity and cheerfulness proper to her own ideas of housekeeping, and the extent of Jane's problem will become clear. Or, moving the simile to English Soil, her problem was not wholly unlike that of the Tilneys in carving or scooping a home out of the austerities of Northanger Abbey.

Of course, one can imagine a solution that would have been ideally perfect. The formality might have conferred the elegance which we so often miss in the brisker styles, and the impulse might have insured the sprightliness the absence of which has so often made elegance formidable. But actuality is rarely so clever as speculation, and Pride and Prejudice for example, though well written throughout, does not quite sustain the union of opposite merits which marks its exquisite beginning.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighborhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is consider as the rightful property of someone or other of their daughters.
If only this manner could have tinged the whole book. The issue would have been much the same as if a lively person, in a time of family mourning wanting to wear pink and bidden to wear sables, should have compromised on lilac. In Miss Austen's case, however, the austerities often carry the day, as in the following account of a man whose pompous diretion is to serve as a butt for the novelist's most intolerant satire.
Mr. Collins was not a sensible man, and the deficiency of nature had been but little assisted by education or society; the greater part of his life having been spent under the guidance of an illiterate and miserly father; and though he belonged to one of the universities, he had merely kept the necessary terms, without forming at it any useful acquaintance. The subjection in which his father has brought him up had given him originally great humility of manner; but it was now a good deal counteracted by the self-conceit of a weak head, living in retirement, and the consequential feelings of early and unexpected prosperity. A fortunate chance had recommended to Lady Catherine de Bourgh when the living of Hunsford was vacant; and the respect he felt for her high rank, and his veneration for her as his patroness, mingling with a very good opinion of himself, of his authority as a clergyman, and his right as a rector, made him altogether a mixture of pride and obsequiousness, self-importance, and humility.
This is fighting the ponderous with its own weapons. In concreteness of any sort, and especially in action, the style gains in trimness and vigor. When it goes out for a walk it loops up its skirts. I need hardly say that in the plain but priceless merits that come from knowing precisely what one wants to say its proficiency is invariable. Jane Austen's hold on facts is muscular.

Pride and Prejudice was written, on the whole, with the scrupulosity of a debutante dressing for her first ball. Even in this book passages can be found in which vigilance is relaxed and facility replaces neatness.

Mr. Darcy was expected there in the course of a few weeks and though there were not many of her acquaintance whom "he did not prefer, his coming would furnish one comparatively new to look at in their Rosings parties, and she might be amused in seeing how hopeless Miss Bingley's designs on him were, by his behaviour to his cousin, for whom he was evidently dested by Lady Catherine, who talked of his coming with the greatest satisfaction, spoke of him in terms of the highest admiration, and seemed almost angry to find that he had already been frequently seen by Miss Lucas and herself.
A sentence of this type accommodates particulars with the elasticity of a third-rate lodging-house. The following from Mansfield Park reads like an corrected college theme:
The subject of reading aloud was further discussed. The two young men were the only talkers, but they, standing by the fire, talked over the too common neglect of the qualification, the total inattention to it, in the ordinary school-system for boys, the consequently natural, yet in some instances almost unnatural, degree of ignorance and uncouthness of men, when suddenly called to the necessity of reading aloud, which had fallen within their notice, giving instances of blunders, and failures with their secondary causes, the want of management of the voice, of proper modulation and emphasis, of foresight and judgment, all proceeding from the first cause: want of early attention and habit; and Fanny was listening again with great entertainment.
Did Miss Austen read aloud her own paragraphs? In Mansfield Park a decline in grace of style is evident, and in Emma the falling-off is marked. I quote the opening of Chapter IV, italicizing the phrases which a lover of harmony and symmetry would have altered.
Harriet Smith's intimacy at Hartfield was soon a settled thing. Quick and decided in her ways, Emma lost no time inviting, encouraging and telling her to come very often; and as their acquaintance increased, so did their satisfaction in each other. As a walking companion, Emma had very early foreseen how useful she might find her. In that respect Mrs. Weston's loss had been important. Her father never went beyond the shrubbery, where two divisions of the ground sufliced him for his long walk, or his short, as the year varied; and since Mrs. Weston's marriage her exercise had been too much confined. She had ventured once alone to Randalls but it was not pleasant; and a Harriet Smith, therefore, one whom she could summon at any time to a walk, would be a valuable addition to her privileges. But in every respect, as she saw more of her, she approved her, and was confirmed in all her kind designs.
Possibly none of the errors I have noted can be called a blemish, but all of them are annoyances, all proofs that we are not dealing with the exigent stylist. Miss Austen is not ringing each sentence on the counter of her ear, as a usurer tests coins to make sure of their claim to acceptance. The style preserves the aspect of solicitude, but disintegration, neither very rapid nor very slow, is clearly visible. The truth is that style, like other delicate things, is fragile, and one of its great enemies is the success of its possessor. The novice's attention to language in the days of his apprenticeship is like the lover's attention to dress while courtship is in progress. Its aim is propitiation, and when the lady or the public is won, and the consent is ratified by marriage or fame, only the man who loves dress or style for its own sake will persevere in wearisome niceties. Miss Austen was always an able or facile Paiter to whom many neat things offered themselves without compulsion or entreaty; Emma itself has no lack of neat things: but the evil of having felicities visit you unbidden is the unwillingness you feel to go in search of them when they are refractory or disobliging. Miss Austen liked style very well, but I think she liked ease and liked speed, and the English in her last three novels is the mixed result of these diverging tendencies.

Quite apart from her abounding humor, Miss Austen had a talent for crispness in language to which she was indisposed to give full play. I cannot help wishing she had written oftener in the style of the following characterieation of Mrs. Bennet: "She was a woman of mean understanding, little informs tion, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news." I sometimes fancy that Miss Austen's style would have profited by the adjoumment of her date of birth by fifty or seventy-five years. A clever woman can always get a great deal of her own way in the teeth of the social restrictions and literary habits to which she feels bound to defer, but always less than she might have had under a system that favored liberty. Diana of the Crossways would have been a completer woman in 1900 than in 1800, and Jane Austen's style might have been bettered not so much by the instruction as by the countenance of the fashions exemplified in Macaulay and Thackeray.

Jane Austen's diction is of a lustrous purity, and her grammar is normally sound. It is a natural grammar, flowing like a spring out of the soil of her native Kent, not let in by pedagogic irrigation. In that test point of English, the discrimination of "shall" and "will," her usage has a boldness and a precision that in itself must have recommended her work to the esteem of Macaulay. She is perfectly secure in the remotest of its intricacies, and I could half wish that the young barbarians all at play in our American colleges could be enjoined to read her Letters through with pointed reference to her virtuosity in this particular. On the other hand, a grammar which has the grace and fortune to be untaught has the drawback of being uncritical, and certain loosenesses, which no doubt prevailed in her circle, fairly rioted in her letters and novels. The slovenly use of the plural pronouns, "they," "their," and "them," in dependence on the singular antecedents, "everybody," "every one," "each," and the like, is unceasing, and appears even where the avoidance of confusion between the sexes cannot possibly be advanced as an excuse. Miss Austen not only writes: "Everybody was pleased to think how much they had always disliked Mr. Darcy," but, in relation to two women: "Each felt for the other, and of course for themselves." Of course this is no worse than Lyly's: "Each Fury skips and flings into her lap their whips" or Galsworthy's: "Each of these ladies held fans in their hands," but the original sin in the usage is not expiated by the gentility of its sponsors. Miss Austen is also overfond of that scarcely incorrect but highly inelegant use of the relative "which" which makes it subtend, not a noun or pronoun, but a clause. "Mr. Hinton is expected home soon which is a good thing for the shirts." She has a fashion of using the subjunctive "were" in place of the indicative "was" in contexts where the former is unsupported by any precedent, either in speech or literature, which I succeed in recalling. She writes: "Imputing his visit to a wish of hearing she were better"; "Before her answer were sent"; "And that Serle and the butler should see that everything were safe in the house." In the invalid, not to say the moribund, English subjunctive, such aggressiveness is peculiarly surprising.

I have little heart for the criticism of those discarded or unfinished works which the zeal of friends*--often as much to be dreaded as the malice of enemies--extracts from the cabinets of dead authors, and bares to the vain curiosity of an idle world. I presume, however, that I should be held critically remiss, if I failed to say a word on the early but undated Lady Susan and the maturer but undated revised and unfinished Watsons. Lady Susan is the story, in forty-one short letters, of the machinations of a Balzackian woman, a woman not only unprincipled, but bad-hearted and cold-blooded, who has a place and technical standing in fashionable English society and in a distrustful, but accommodating, family circle. If the treatment is weak in its entire absence of gusto, it is respectable in its total relinquishment of the levity of melodrama. Lady Susan herself is no bugaboo, but a study, and while it cannot be classed as a strong study, the cool resolve which is its main ingredient distinguishes it sharply from the juvenile and the commonplace. The book is arctic perhaps in a sense, but it shows the firmness no less than the rigidity of frost. Possibly the most promising trait in the book is an artistic severity, which is strong enough to hold even the moral severity in check. The book is quite correct in its awards of praise and rebuke, but it declines to excite itself over the fact of disapproval.

The fragmentary Watsons, though much better than Lady Susan, calls for less comment, because it deals with Miss Austen's habitual material, assemblies, visits, gossip, and flirtations, in a swifter and sketchier form of the customary Austen manner. The treatment, both of character and incident, is a little lean, but the narrative shows a lightness and speed which I doubt if it always reaches in finished worlrs where it has the weight of style to carry.

*In justice to Mr. J. E. Austen Leigh, who gave Lady Susan to the world, it may be said that he yielded reluctantly to repeated solicitations. I honor his reluctance and regret its futility.

This text was originally digitized by Catherine Dean for her "Jane Austen E-Texts, Etc." website, and is archived at Molland's with Ms. Dean's permission.